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Hit the road, Jack

and come back in just over a week.

in Travel , Friday, April 24, 2009

After over 1 whole year, I’ve been getting withdrawal symptoms. Therefore I’m saddling up the palomino (well, ok, Suzuki Gran Vitara) and heading off to the Westfjords in Iceland.

Not quite yet tourist season, not quite winter anymore ... hopefully ... although since it snowed last night down here in banana belt, heaven’s knows what the weather will be doing.

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Taken

A journey through the Past

in Photography , Thursday, March 19, 2009

Today was the feast of San Giuseppe, and a public holiday here in Ticino. I decided to take advantage of the unusually warm weather to head off to the Valle Bavona region, a tributary valley to Vallemaggia. Up to the early 20th century Valle Bavona, and many of the other sub alpine valleys in Ticino, had a thriving population. Life was not easy, and certainly the industrial revolution didn’t have a lot of impact. These days, the thread of tiny vilages, with their stone houses huddled together for warmth and protection, are largely deserted. In many cases the houses, known as “rustico”, have been converted to summer holiday homes, in a few cases by descendants of the original inhabitants. A few are still lived in, by the people who cling to the valley life. And many have fallen into decay and ruin.

I drove up to the end of the valley road to see when the cable car, which takes you up to the higher alps, opens. The answer was “June”. On the way back down, I glimpsed a few shapes on the opposite slope, which turned out to be a small church tower and a few houses. I’d never noticed these before. They’re hidden by trees, and in summer would be pretty much invisible. There’s no road up there, but I looked around for any indication of a path - since there’s still a lot of snow around, I didn’t hold up much hope, but I eventually found one on the other side of a footbridge over the river.

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After stumbling through various snow drifts (snow shoes would have been a good idea) and stopping off to photograph some attractive blue / violet flowers colonising patches of snow-free ground, I eventually found my way to the village.

It turns out it’s called “Prèsa”, which if I ignore the accent, and pretend it is Italian rather than the valley dialect, could be translated to “Taken”, which I found rather apt.

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Clearly some of the buildings have been taken care of, in particular the small church tower. There are around 10 houses still identifiable, and probably more under the snow.  These places always have a melancholy air to me. I can only imagine a hundred years ago, on such an unseasonly warm day, heralding spring, that the place would burst into life, with excited children running around, men and women taking a little time to enjoy the warm air, and everybody thinking ahead to warm days in the alpine meadows.  Unrealistically romantic, I know. Life was very hard in these places. However, I do believe that these people enjoyed a much stronger sense of community and closeness the we do now.

On my way back down to the road, trying not to get lost in the woods, I couldn’t shake off the image of being followed by a bunch of excited children, delighted by my clumsy attempts to avoid falling over the snow and walking into trees. Maybe there were days like that.

 

Turning icelandic ?

Wishful thinking and scattered thoughts

in General Rants , Wednesday, February 11, 2009

There’s no getting away from it. I’m totally addicted to Iceland. Some days I practically live there in my head. I listen to Icelandic music - Bang Gang, Hafdis Huld, Emiliana Torrini, for example. And of course Sigur Ros, although I have to confess I don’t actually like them all that much. Late Talk Talk is far better if you like that sort of thing. Whenever I can I read books by Icelandic authors, old and new. I have over 7000 photos from Iceland, and I’ve been there more times than any other place (except maybe Italy and Estonia) in the last few years. And I’m always thinking about the next time.



A lot of people visit Iceland - apparently as many tourists go there each year as there are inhabitants, mostly in the summer months. And of course it is a magnet for photographers, although, frankly, unless you live there, you can’t really expect to do much original work. Most of the obvious stuff has been done time and time again. And photography is a big reason for me to go, but it isn’t essential, and is becoming less so.



The combination of a remarkable, evocative and romantic landscape, intelligent and resourceful people (although quite often a bit weird, let’s be honest), and a fascinating history all adds to the magic.



Perhaps the clear air, the wide open spaces, the sense of newness and discovery all help. I don’t know. I don’t really understand exactly why Iceland has got so deep under my skin. The only other place that came even close was Ireland, some time back, but not that close.



And maybe ... maybe it’s because it is so different from the stuffy, constricting claustrophobia of mainstream Europe.

 

An accidental photgrapher in Antarctica (revisited)

A slightly revised article written quite a while ago, rescued from the old site.

in essay , Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sometime shortly after Noah’s Ark ran aground, in early 1984 I was working in my first job in Cranfield, England. Whilst it was more or less related to my university education, it wasn’t very exciting. One day, I picked up a copy of New Scientist at lunchtime, and found a job advertised for a “radio echo sounding research assistant” at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in nearby Cambridge. The pay was peanuts, but it sounded interesting, so I applied. And to my surprise I got the job. I had never really thought about Antarctica. Several of my friends at University had desperately wanted to join BAS, with no success. And I just sort of stumbled in. Some time later I remembered that when I was around 10 I went through a phase of reading books about epic polar explorers, but I had completely forgotten this. So there it was - a defining moment in many ways, as it turned out.

Canon lens cap embedded in the Ronne Ice Shelf, circa February 1988

I visited Antarctica twice, once in 1987/88 with BAS, once in 1991/92 with the Norwegian-led Aurora Programme, under a European Space Agency research activity. I have to say that BAS, certainly at that time, was very British. No women, stiff upper lip, yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir. With my ever characteristic inability to respect blind authority, coupled with some very frustrating work circumstances, I ended up pretty unpopular with some of the hierarchy. To be fair, the hierarchy had a point, to some extent, but it was significant that several other people had similar issues and none of them were British. The Norwegian “total chaos” approach was far better suited to my character, and my professional output was far better in those circumstances.

Rocky ridge emerging from the ice, towering over Damoy Hut (the dot in the snow, left side)

The accidental path that led me to Antarctica was mirrored by my equal innocence about photography. BAS in the late 1980s was (and almost certainly still is) as much a camera club as a science lab. Everybody was a camera nut, and coffee break discussions were as likely to be Canon v. Nikon as the latest discoveries in polar science. Naturally there was the odd Minolta and Leica fan around too - not to mention a small but vociferous Olympus OM clique. Everybody was filling up every spare space in equipment cases with film stashes. Eventually I realised I ought to get involved in all this, and I started to panic. What on earth were all these numbers about ? F-stops ? Shutter speeds, manual, spot, apertures ? I had no idea, and certain friends (hi, Rick) were beginning to get annoyed with me. I “borrowed” my father’s camera and lenses, which turned out to have “Canon” written on them. Another accidental choice that defined my choice of equipment for many years forward. So I had a Canon FT QL, and a handful of lenses, including a Canon 50mm f1.4, a Vivitar 200mm zoom, and what I now know was a grotesque fish eye adaptor but at the time I thought was pretty cool. The camera expired some years ago, from terminal neglect, but the lenses are still around. Even the fisheye.

Mountains above Port Lockroy, through the grotesque fisheye adaptor

I have approximately 3000 slides from Antarctica, mostly Kodachrome 64, with some K25 and some Ektachrome, because it seemed the right thing to do. Of the 3000, maybe 30 or so are reasonable photos, and of these, approximately 10 have survived being carelessly stored over the last 15 years. Only around the late 90s, when I got my first film scanner, did I wake up to the scourge of slide emulsion fungus. Of course in “travelogue” terms, there are a lot more than 30 interesting slides, and as far a personal mementoes are concerned they’re almost all interesting. Such is the level of interest in Antarctica that I was frequently asked to present slide shows. It was from conversations arising from these that I ended deciding to write this article.

Worried penguin, Rothera Base. Antarctica is a land of high contrasts.

Photography in Antarctica is technically tricky. Landscapes are often highly contrasted between the white of the snow, the dark rocks, the water and the sky. The wildlife is contrasty too - penguins are black and white, pretty much. In the vast expanses of the great ice shelves, the world is two colours: blue and white. To cope with all this I had the built in selenium cell centre weighted meter of the Canon FT, where I had to line up a needle with a circle. I’m pretty sure I didn’t really grasp why I had to do this - never mind understood that the camera thought snow was a neutral gray! Given this it is remarkable that anything worked. Certainly various people gave me tips on exposure at various times, but at the same time it does illustrate that you can sometimes get by blissfully ignorant of the “rules” and mechanics.

In many, if not most of my photographs, especially those taken in the interior, the weather is not very good. This isn’t because the weather is very bad in Antarctica - simply that when you’re there to work, a good weather day is a work day. Photography days are bad weather days. Since bad weather often translates to interesting conditions for photography, this is not always a drawback. But once again, I didn’t know that at the time!

The traditional way of getting to Antarctica is by sea. Certainly in the mid-80s it was the only realistic way of getting to the Antarctic Peninsula. This meant crossing the Drake Passage, which can be a fearsome experience. In fact, in 1987, due to various circumstances, I left from Port Stanley in the Falklands, crossed the Drake Passage to the South Orkney Islands, crossed back to Port Stanley, and then finally back again to Deception Island and the Peninsula.

Sea ice inside the Deception Island caldera

This is more or less the itinerary taken by tourist ships (although without the doubling back!). Further travel in 87/88 was by aircraft, a Twin Otter fitted with skis. In 91/92, the route was far less travelled, going from Monetvideo in Uruguay non-stop to the south Weddell Sea. This was more or less the route travelled by Shackleton’s Endurance, and we were perhaps fortunate not to suffer the same fate. All this travelling gave plenty of opportunity for photography.

Iceberg off the coast of Graham Land

The potential for landscape photography is endless along the Peninsula and in the South Atlantic islands. On the Weddell Sea coast, which is fringed by ice caps and ice shelves, there is little other than snow, ice and water. The weather along the Peninsula is frequently bad, but can sometimes clear to an absolutely breathtaking clarity. To take advantage of this, you need to be in the right place at the right time. In 1987, I was “stuck” for 6 weeks at one of the most photogenic places in Antarctica. Wiencke Island is home to vast numbers of Gentoo penguins, and is surrounded by awesome scenery.

On the beach, Wiencke Island.

Mt Français, the highest mountain in the Peninsula, towers over the Neumayer Channel. The historic base of Port Lockroy was in sight but frustratingly out of reach. All this just outside the front door. That I managed a few reasonable photos was more by luck than judgement… Most of my slides are affected by dreadful vignetting, and blur due to the lack of any tripod or technique. It is tempting to say it was a wasted opportunity, but since I wasn’t really aware that I was interested in photography in those days, it isn’t really true.

Mt Français, on Anvers Island, across the Neumayer Channel

As I said before, a lot of the interior of Antarctica is less photogenic. It is none the less fascinating, and some unique sights are to be found. But the overall impression in the middle of one of the great ice shelves, on a good weather day at least, is of White, Blue, and total stillness and silence.

Sea ice-filled rift on the Ronne Ice Shelf. The ice shelf here is about 500m thick. It’s floating.

Penguins: the number 1 association in most peoples minds with Antarctica. And polar bears of course. Antarctica can be a paradise for wildlife photographers. Wildlife is plentiful, at least in coastal zones, fascinating, and approachable. Apart from penguins of all shapes and forms, there are various varieties of seals - Weddell, Leopard, Fur, Elephant, the last three which can be seen at close quarters on land (although not too close - “approachable” does NOT mean “friendly”. These animals bite, big time). Birds are everywhere, from the huge and fascinating wandering alabatross to the tiny and perhaps even more fascinating Wilson’s petrel. Not to mention that airborne menace, the brown skua.

Weddell Sea on sea ice near the Brunt Ice Shelf

The best place to see a lot of this wildlife on the “tourist trail” is actually South Georgia. Although it is included in many tourist ship iteneraries of Antarctica, this usually involves a quick stopover at Grytviken. South Georgia is worth much more than this. One day, maybe… A wonderful account of South Georgia is given by Tim an Pauline Carr, in their book Antarctic Oasis. Pedants would argue that it isn’t in the Antarctic, but whatever.

Fur seal pup, near Grytviken, South Georgia

So, penguins. I know that’s what you’re here for. Everybody ends up with their favourite penguin variety. Mine is the Gentoo, with the Adelie a close second. Gentoos are plentiful in the Antarctic Peninsula, so these, along with King Penguins, are the ones most likely to be seen. Gentoos are quite small but very endearing. They have the classic penguin shape, a red beak, and a white flash above their eyes.

Gentoo penguin, Wiencke Island.

Note that the photo above was taken with a 50mm lens. You can get as close as you want to penguins on land, as they have no land-borne natural predators - just seals in the water and skuas in the air. This does not, however, mean that they will not be worried or stressed, simply that they have no “run away” mechanism gentically programmed in this case. The Antarctic Treaty lays down strict regulations on wildlife protection, and at least at BAS any violation of this was a serious disciplinary offence. I believe most responsible tourism companies follow these guidelines. Antarctic wildlife (actually, pretty much all wildlife) has a hard enough time without humans making it worse.

The local immigration officials turn up for an inspection

Having said this, it is impossible to not get involved with Adelie penguins. These characters, generally found further south than Gentoos, are irrepressibly inquisitive. They come into buildings, into tents, anywhere. They are vastly entertaining, but can end up a bit annoying after a while.

The star act of the penguin world is the Emperor. These birds are about 1.3m tall, and are the only variety to spend the winter in Antarctica. I’m tempted to say “stupid enough to”, because compared with Adelies they don’t seem too bright, at least on land, but when you see them swimming underwater, it all makes sense. Emperors are the fastest swimmers, the deepest divers, and really one of the most remarkable species on the planet.

Emperor penguins on sea ice, Prinz Luipolt Coast.

Recommendations for visiting Antarctica

Finally, a few tips for people who want to visit Antarctica. If you can, get a job there: it’s much cheaper. Tourist travel is offered by many companies, using purpose designed cruise ships such as MV World Discoverer (for the very rich), slightly updated Russian research vessels, such as Akademik Shokalskiy, which are built to last (for the slightly less rich), and a variety of specialist operators (for the slightly crazy and rich). The Russian and associated variety are often the best bet: they are better in sea ice, and can get further south. However, one thing to bear in mind, especially in the Drake Passage, is that icebreakers are NOT optimised for stability in stormy seas. Stay in your bunk and close your eyes. Try to find a tour that concentrates on the Peninsula. Find a ship that goes through Lemaire Channel (aka “Kodak Crack”, although I guess these days it should be “Megapixel Maw”). The sub-Antarctic islands are nice enough, but be warned, they involve long, boring sea passages, and are generally on the itinerary because they are easier to get to. If you want to see Emperor penguins, you’ll have to go up a notch and find a specialist operator such as Adventure Network International. You’ll need to be Bill Gates though.

So do I agree with Antarctic tourism? Well it is a controversial subject, but on the whole, yes. Whilst tourism increases the risk of a major environmental disaster, the more people who get the chance to see these regions, the greater the pressure will be on politicians to protect them. Responsible tourism advocated by bodies such as IAATO seems ok to me. Antarctica is often called a “continent for Science”, but, finally, it’s much, much more than that.

Credits: a big thank you to Rick Frolich for all the advice those many years ago, to Julian Paren for telling me which way to point the camera, to Mike Collins for the laughs, and to Chris Doake for giving me the job in the first place and for encouragement and support thereafter. And, much later, to Michael Reichmann and Daniel Bergmann for showing me the value of the “crop” tool.

 

Chasing icebergs in Iceland

Another blast from the past

in essay , Thursday, November 30, 2006

This article was written in 2005, originally for the web, but then pulled and modified for publication in Iceland Geographic. Unfortunately the magazine faded out of existence before it could be published (or even accepted, although it was in theory accepted)

I first came to Iceland six years ago. In the unexpected, luminous ambience of a midsummer late evening arrival at Keflavik, I felt a little apart and distant from the befuddled masses who were “only” going to Iceland: for me, and a few others, Iceland was simply a stepping stone to Greenland. The journey to Reykjavik did little to change my mind. Perhaps in reply to my disdain, the black, colourless landscape blanketed itself in drizzly, low clouds.  If I wasn’t prepared to show some respect, Iceland was not going to reveal itself to me yet!  But why Greenland?  I could reply in one word: icebergs.  The sights I had seen some years before in Antarctica, of fantastic colours and shapes floating in mirror still, crystal clear water under a midnight sun were always in my mind. I wanted to see this again. Whilst I did find what I was looking for in Greenland, and much more besides, I had no idea then it was much closer at hand.

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Several years later, having realised what I was missing out on, I decided to visit Iceland properly. An opportunity to join a photographic workshop with leading Canadian landscape photographer Michael Reichmann, and local specialist Daníel Bergmann was the perfect chance. Some days into this journey, we were driving down Highway 1, in a pretty barren landscape, with the sea some distance off on the left, and a low range of hills close on the left. Suddenly Daníel directed us to turn left, and we clattered off the highway. Getting out of the vehicles, and climbing to the top of the ridge, suddenly a awe-inspiring vista opened up: the Jökulsárlon lagoon, full of icebergs, full of wonder, right there at our feet.  This is the best way to meet Jökulsárlon for the first time, rather than the far less spectacular initial sight from the highway bridge.

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Forward to July 2005, and it is already my fourth or fifth visit. It is always special, but this time, emerging from two days of constant downpour, it is magical. Leaving the car park and the Highway 1 bridge far behind, we have wandered for several hours along the west shore of the lagoon, vaguely hoping to approach the ice cliff where Breiðamerkurjokull meets the water, shedding icebergs of all shapes, sizes and colours. We cannot help but stop frequently, captivated by the endless display of fantastically sculpted shapes. We are halted by the site of a berg gracefully rotating as melting shifts its balance, to present a fresh cobalt blue underside to the world. Many icebergs show dark streaks, of gravel and ash that settled on the glacier during its slow progress to the lagoon. Some are jet black, others pristine white. Small fragments of clear ice dot the shore, looking like exotic crystal sculptures.
We continue our walk.  The thick clouds that were sweeping in just an hour ago have miraculously vanished, revealing a clear blue evening sky. The water is now quite still, and acts as a giant mirror to the ice, the sky and the mountains in the distance. It is a long way to the ice front, or rather to an outlook from which it can clearly be seen, and we continue to make our way along the pebble beaches.

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Even by Icelandic standards Jökulsárlon is a new feature in the landscape. Correctly termed a proglacial lake, it started to form in 1933, as the Breiðamerkurjokul retreated, leaving open a trench through which seawater could flow. By the end of the 20th century it covered over 17 square kilometres, and continues to expand as the glacier retreats. Scientific surveys have revealed a deep narrow trench extending 25 km inland – were the ice to fully retreat, a spectacular fjord would be revealed. However, nothing can be predicted with certainty about the future evolution of the region. Both global and local continuing climate change is likely, but what form they will take, and what consequences this might have, is less clear. Sediment carried into the lake might reduce its volume, which in turn could slow down the melting of the icebergs. On the other hand, coastal erosion, a result of the lack of sediment carried into the sea since the lagoon’s formation, might lead to a wider breach into the ocean, in turn leading to an increase in melting. Breiðamerkurjokul is an outlet glacier from the Vatnajokull ice cap, and changes in – or under – the ice cap are also directly reflected in the behaviour of the glacier. For now, we can enjoy the wonderful scene that nature has created, but any sense of timelessness or tranquillity is an illusion.

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The effects of the glacier’s retreat are also clear where the Breiðamerkursandur meets the ocean. Previously, the sediment transported by the glacier matched that taken away by the tides. Now there is very little to counter the costal erosion, and the power lines, road and bridge are potentially threatened. Plans are being drawn up to reroute the road and the power lines, and to build coastal defences – but ultimately it has to be questioned if this could do more than postpone the inevitable victory of the sea.

We have reached a wide, flat area of gravel and pebbles, from where the ice cliffs can be seen, although they’re still a long way off. This lagoon is bigger than it looks back from the road. Directly in front of us, reflected in the still water, is a big, white, triangular berg. It looks just like a classic view of the Matterhorn, back home in Switzerland, reflected in a lake. It’s getting late, so we decide to stay here for a while just to appreciate the scenery before heading back. As we sit there, in the distance something is moving towards us. It turns out to be a small group of eider ducks, which proceed to come right up to us, checking out these strange apparitions, and stay a while, swimming back and forward in front of us, sometimes diving, and eventually drifting off again. It is incredible – we have never before managed to get anywhere near to these ducks, but here, in such idyllic settings, they have come right up to us.

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Jökulsárlon is a firm fixture on the Icelandic tourist trail. Although it is quite a trek from Reykjavik and other classic locations such as Geysir and Gulfoss, in summer during the daytime a constant stream of tourist busses arrives at the car park near the bridge. Some will take a few snapshots, wander over to the café and sit waiting to leave. Many take a trip out onto the lagoon in the bright yellow amphibious boats that give you an up-close experience of the icebergs. It is busy, full of people enjoying their vacation. It is also a good place to watch out for seals, which venture into the lagoon from the ocean. But you need only to wander a little way from here, along the moraine ridges, which encircle both the east and west margins, to find a peaceful spot. For the more addictive, the moraine offers plenty of places where you can discretely pitch a tent for the night, without spoiling other people’s view, and protected from the wind.

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Finally, and full of images both in our heads and in our cameras, we walk back along the shore to our campsite. At this time of night, there is not a soul to be seen. The ever-present roar of heavy trucks rushing along Highway 1, just the other side of the ridge, turns out in fact to be the sound of the ocean waves crashing on the beach. We’re in Iceland, so of course the weather has turned, but it is of no matter. Jökulsárlon has many characters, depending on the weather: dazzling under a clear summer sky, peaceful on a quiet evening, mysterious and otherworldly when enveloped in fog. A quick meal cooked over a camping gas stove turns into a luxury dining experience from our perch overlooking the iceberg-filled lagoon.

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The following morning we pack up and head over to the café for breakfast. Before we head off though, there is one last highlight waiting for us. On the ocean side of the bridge, remnants of icebergs carried by the Jökulsa River end up briefly on the beach. The contrasts of the smooth, eroded, white, blue, or crystal clear ice against the black sand are another delight to be savoured. Finally, after much lingering, we head off down the road towards Höfn. Amidst all this change, one thing is sure: we will be back.

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